Monday, 28 July 2014

Tower Hamlets: the net tightens

Regular readers will know that I appear to be slightly obsessed with this small corner of English local government.

Partly, I freely admit, is purely personal: last year its mayor, Lutfur Rahman, ably demonstrated his unfitness to hold public office by wasting the time of his local police in pursuing someone who disagreed with him (i.e. me). Neither was it the first time this had happened - he has also spent over £100,000 of public money pursuing a whistleblower through the courts (a case he lost) and more in trying to stop the current petition against him in the High Court.

But partly it’s because this is important. One of the great things about Britain is that it is remarkably free – relatively speaking – of the widespread graft, fraud and misuse of public funds which infects much democratic politics, even in the developed world. Such a case as Tower Hamlets has probably not been seen since the dark days of Liverpool’s Militant council under Derek Hatton in the 1980s.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Oh, Russia.

"We touched nothing" - Donetsk press conference. Photo: RT
How long did we in the West really think it would be before the Ukraine crisis actually affected our own countries and we had to take our heads out of the sand? 

That moment definitively came last Thursday, with the crash of Malaysian Airlines’ flight MH17, apparently shot down by pro-Russian forces. As the Atlantic's David Frum put it, in a magisterial piece:
"Through the past eight months of escalating Russian violence against Ukraine, too many European governments have treated the Ukraine issue as remote and marginal: regrettable, yes, but not a threat to the peace of the continent. It was more important, they felt, to sustain a normal relationship with Russia. That illusion died yesterday along with the murdered passengers of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17."
Whether this was a deliberate, cynical ploy or mere ineptitude, it seems unlikely that such an attack could have been directly sanctioned by Moscow.That said, the blame for initiating and then inflaming the current crisis in Ukraine, to the point where three hundred civilians who had nothing to do with the conflict are needlessly killed, lies squarely at the door of one man: Vladimir Putin. 

And it is not just the fact of the tragedy itself; what makes it somehow incalculably worse is the way the aftermath is being dealt with. 

Putin is not only attempting his usual trick of propaganda war, pretending it was the Ukrainian army and not the pro-Russians. It is what Neil Kinnock might have called the "grotesque spectacle" of access to the crash site by international inspectors being openly hindered. And that is for the obvious reason that the finding of too much evidence, including the black box, by a neutral party (i.e. not by the pro-Russians, who claim risibly "we touched nothing") would give the lie to Moscow's transparent untruths.

As my Humanitarian Intervention Centre colleague, Julie, puts it:
It is for this reason that at this point it seems highly unlikely that the international community will ever know the contents of the flight recorder.

Neither am I hopeful that, even now, faced with the results of what we might call its "ostrich strategy", the West will finally be moved to take action over Ukraine. The talk this morning is of giving Putin "one last chance" - as if somehow all the other last chances had worked so well - and it seems to me increasingly clear that the only way Putin's rampage will be stopped will be through a change of US president.

Oh, Russia.

UPDATE 21JUL: I spoke a little too soon: the Donetsk People's Republic has agreed to hand over the flight recorder to Malaysia. However, we can not yet prove that: 
(a) it has not been tampered with, and 
(b) Malaysia, which is not an entirely free and democratic state in the first place, will not be bullied or bought off by Russia in the meantime.

Forgive my cynicism but Putin has a history of deliberately doing unexpected things in order to confuse his critics and facilitate plausible deniability; this may well be just another. Even in the happy event that neither of these cases come to pass, the black box may not, of course, prove who downed the plane anyway. Let's see.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

SNP and Gaza: why Salmond is not a statesman

If you needed any justification for the argument that Alex Salmond is merely a clever populist, who is probably a couple of months away from seriously overreaching himself, you have only to look at his position on the Gaza, where the Israeli and Gazan forces are currently racking up casualties at an alarming rate.

The abduction and killing of teenagers on both sides has triggered a new phase of bombardments between Israel and Gaza. The immediate result of the current campaign is that a large number of civilian casualties - including significant numbers of children - are occurring, mostly on the Gazan side, as Israel's "protective shield" stops a large proportion of the rockets. 

It's horrible. Palestinians have a decent case for statehood, but this ain't the way to go about it. Worst of all, Hamas leaders are showing a shocking disregard for lives of both Israelis and Palestinians.

Israel should certainly be criticised for many things, not least its pig-headedly stupid attitude to settlements in the occupied areas, but at the end of the day it is a democratic power, defending its citizens which are being bombarded by a hail of rockets from Gaza. 

Which are being fired, again, from civilian areas where the apparently expendable citizens of Gaza are being used by their leaders as human shields; leaders who are, incidentally, considered terrorists across the Western world, are not democratic, who oppress women and minorities and are known not just for rockets but their deliberate targeting of civilians and, formerly, suicide bombing.

One can and should always feel solidarity with ordinary Gazans. But not with their leaders. These are not nice people.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

My Twitter zenith, or A Plague On Both Your Houses

After this morning, I think I can retire from Twitter. Oh yes. I now know what it is like to be a minor celebrity.

Yes, after my most successful-ever tweet (below), I felt indecently pleased and smug, in the way that professional writers who have just coined a phrase or politicians who have minted a fine, populist sound-bite must do. How unutterably sad of me.
But to work. The flippant point was a real one: David Cameron betrays an astonishing lack of self-awareness in criticising Britain’s unions for the lack of democratic legitimacy surrounding today’s strikes. After all, he became Prime Minister on the back of the votes of only 23% of the British electorate* (I’m afraid my earlier calculation of 21% was slightly out).

Thursday, 3 July 2014

8 May, 2015: the day-after scenarios

It’s a rollercoaster ride, this one. On the one hand, we continue to have a recovering economy, a relentlessly-downward-trending poll lead and pretty horrific personal polling for the Labour leader. The head of the policy review says “interesting ideas and remedies are not going to emerge through Labour’s policy review”. A well-meant piece on LabourList tries to argue “Why Miliband still matters”. Senior party figures, sensing a possible future leadership contest, are clearly on manoeuvres. The impression of disarray in Labour ranks is hard to avoid.

On the other, we have
Michael Ashcroft’s analysis which shows that, surprisingly, Labour is still ahead in the marginals, where it counts. Incumbent parties do not generally increase their vote-share, either (although neither have we had a coalition for 70 years, so who knows).

Wiser heads realise that this is because the election really is still too close to call, ten months out. We can but set out the possible scenarios, without any real idea which will prevail. Whatever the result, the one thing we can say with a reasonable probability is that no-one is going to get a landslide. And this one thing that we can say, the relative closeness of it all, brings its own consequences.

So, those scenarios.

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